Though she'll never admit it, Marnie Stern totally shreds on guitar. The Brooklyn-based musician has made a name for herself weaving trilled-out chromatic scales and dizzying dive-bombs into her quirky noise-rock tunes. Stern's latest opus, This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, plunges listeners into a bizarre amalgam of erratic indie-pop and the kind of licks that would make Eddie Van Halen's head spin. But despite her jaw-dropping chops, the axe-slinger maintains you won't be seeing her in the pages of Guitar World anytime soon.
"Everyone keeps saying I'm a virtuoso," she complains from her New York apartment. "I'm not a virtuoso. Crazy guitar people, they know I'm not a virtuoso. I think I'm pretty good, but certainly not like that."
While the guitarist is plenty proud of her dextrous digits, her goal on This Is It was to tame the wild prog-punk sensibilities of In Advance of the Broken Arm, her 2007 debut.
"It's so straightforward," Stern says of her latest disc. "I was almost hesitant about it. I thought that the two [albums] next to each other were worlds apart."
Despite her claims, the tunes on This Is It aren't completely removed from her earlier work. The 12-song CD is crammed with the schizophrenic string slides, odd time signatures, and Yoko Ono-on-a-helium-bender vocals that have made Stern an underground sensation. What the new album does display, however, is Stern's newfound knack for restraint.
"Ruler" finds her rocking a minimalist two-chord groove atop a dancey disco beat, while multitracked vocals coo the song's angelic chorus. Ultimately, though, the track explodes into a damaged cluster-fuck of six-string noodling and raucous drum fills.
"That's my favourite song on the record," Stern reveals. "To me, ”˜Ruler' is so pop, like Prince or something."
Stern further explores traditional rock structures on the album highlight "Transformer". With a two-handed tapping lick lifted straight out of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck", the hard-rock rager will pump up anyone from morning joggers to the Canucks crowd at GM Place.
"I wanted to make fun songs that you could walk down the street to, songs to get excited about," Stern explains. "I went down to Florida to be with my mom, and I would walk her dogs while listening to it [the album]. I knew that was a good sign."
"Transformer" also plugs the album's central theme of moving forward, with its yelped refrain "The future is yours, so fill this part in." While the songstress admits that sentiment helped guide her musical evolution, Stern notes that This Is It's focus on the future comes from an obsession with sci-fi films.
"I was watching a ton of those and thinking about the future and space travel and feeling bummed," she laments. "When I was a kid they said we'd be in a space station on Mars by now. What the fuck? I want my spaceship!"
Marnie Stern plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (November 11).